Big Women Can’t Wear…

Melissa McCarthy at the Golden Globes Awards

Melissa McCarthy at the Golden Globes Awards

The actress Melissa McCarthy is starting her own clothing line.

Although she has won an Emmy for Best Actress in the sitcom Mike and Molly and been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Bridesmaids,  finding large clothes is a challenge.

She told Redbook:

“When I go shopping, most of the time I’m disappointed. Two Oscars ago, I couldn’t find anybody to do a dress for me. I asked five or six designers–very high-level ones who make lots of dresses for people — and they all said no.”

It’s obviously discrimination, as is the myth that fat people are unhealthy, trashy, lower-class, etc.

I’ve been a jeans-and-t-shirt kind of girl forever.

I was a runner till I was 48.  After I stopped running, the weight piled on.

It is excruciating trying to find clothes in large sizes.  Not only would you never wear most of them, but I assure you that few have ever been seen outside the dressing room. There are polka-dotted polyester blouses, the stretch pants that stick unbecomingly to your butt, low-cut polyester tunics made for huge-breasted women, and sweatshirts that say “Grandma” (I’ve never reproduced).

Yup, make you look your worst!  That’s the motto.

Fortunately, you can find well-made normal nice clothes for large women in catalogues.

And after buying from a few catalogues, other catalogues arrive in the mail.

Yesterday I received a catalogue called “The Pyramid Collection:  Myth, Magick, Fantasy & Romance.”  Though fantasy and romance are good in theory, my idea of a romantic evening  is to go  to Barnes and Noble and buy a couple of paperbacks with my husband.  But perhaps I’m not past it, because a man recently gave me romantic advice–“The men love the games”–which made me roar with laughter.

All right, I’m flipping through the catalogue.  I’ve rejected a pale green nylon dress called  “Tea at the Abbey.”  It has”flutter sleeves and a slanted crystal-accented crossover front ruffle.”  The tie-dyed halter dress is also out.

And then things start to get strange.  Why are there so many corsets?  I’m revolted by the “love bite choker.”  And, you know, the “Steam Age chic” black velvet hat with a chain and feather looks a little slutty.

Finally we arrive at the “climax” of the catalogue.

It’s called “State of Bliss.”

Two pages of vibrators.

There’s the one you tuck into your “saucy lace briefs,” the “discreet personal massager” that looks like a lipstick, a penis-shaped “hearts-and-glitter-spangled massager,” oh, and a movie called “The Art of Orgasm.”

“Order toll-free any time!”

Not to be a prude or anything, but I’ve thrown this catalogue away.

Dishing the Dirt: Man Booker Prize Scandals

man-booker-prize-2014_0It is the year 2014.  The Earth is a dystopian disaster.  The planet has been destroyed  by fossil fuel wars, the internet has wrecked the human attention span, the food is genetically engineered…  and now the Man Booker Prize judges have selected only three women’s books for the longlist.

The three are:  Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (which I loved), Siri Hustedt’s The Blazing World, and Ali Smith’s How to Be Both.

There are four male judges and two female judges, but since I’ve never heard of any of them, I’m going to pass on judging judges.

But the numbers suggest we’re back in the world of 1959, when Norman Mailer wrote in Advertisements for Myself:

I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am sometimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict maybe taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure—that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.

All right, Norman.  That’s just boyish hi-jinks.

But let me not pretend that women writers/judges are better than men.  Some are, some are not.   In  an article published last year in The Daily Beast“The 12 Biggest Booker Controversies,” I learned about some fascinating Booker scandals.

In 1993, after Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting made the longlist, two women judges said “their feminist sensibilities were offended” and they would resign if the book made the shortlist.

Carmen Calil, founder of Virago Books, always gets attention.  According to The Daily Beast,

“Hours after Arundhati Roy won the prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things, author Carmen Callil—the chair of the previous year’s committee—criticized the book on the BBC as “execrable,” saying it never should have even made the shortlist.”

Calil is clearly an important figure in British publishing, but she also ran to the press in 2011 after Philip Roth won the International Man Booker Prize. She said she resigned from the panel of judges after the two male judges chose Roth.  I still don’t understand how the prize could have been awarded without a consensus among three judges.

Then there is A. L. Kennedy, who was a Booker judge in 1996. According to The Daily Beast, she said in 2001  the Booker was  “a pile of crooked nonsense,”and that it was decided by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.”

( A. L. really needs to read pop fiction.  Most of us discovered how the world worked by reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or Judith Krantz’s Scruples.)

The last scandal occurred in 2011 when Dame Stella Rimington, the chair of the judges, said they were looking for “readability.”  It’s not that we DIDN’T want a readable book, but most of us were looking for the next A. S. Byatt, not the next Rosamund Pilcher.

The judges this year, about whom I know nothing, are: AC Grayling, a philosopher and this year’s cahir; Jonathan Bate, Oxford Professor of English Literature and biographer; Sarah Churchwell, UEA’s Professor of American Literature; Dr Daniel Glaser, neuroscientist and cultural commentator; Dr Alastair Niven, former Director of Literature at the British Council and at the Arts Council; and Erica Wagner, journalist and writer.

Good luck, break a leg, and all is forgiven if the award goes to an interesting book….by a man or a woman.

The Woman Question: The Man Booker Prize Longlist

man_booker_prize_logoThe internet has ruined literary awards for me.

Every year there is a new Man Booker Prize scandal.

I used to love the Booker Prize and have over the years read some great books on shortlists and longlists.

But, due to the fabulous invention of WiFi, I  can now read endless, wearisome Man Booker Prize gossip in The Guardian and other papers.  They report on the judges’ latest faux pas (and really why should we care?), the writers’ insane outbursts, and the bookies’ odds on the winner.  I love the longlist and the shorlist, but by the time the award is announced, I no longer care.

And now let me join the scandal rehashers.

This year’s scandal is woman-related.  The writer Kathy Lette complained to The Telegraph that there are only three women on the Booker longlist:  Ali Smith, Karen Joy Fowler and Siri Hustvedt.

I didn’t notice, because my feminist antennae are on vacation for the summer, and I mostly read dead writers anyway.  I may have a slight bias in favor of women writers, but we’re lucky in this era to find ANY good books, so gender doesn’t matter.  As one of my friends recently wrote, “I’m surprised there are any books left.”

But now I have to consider the woman question again.  Here I am, in late middle age, and nothing has changed since I was a young woman in the ’70s.

I’m reminded of Norman Mailer’s silly arguments that women couldn’t write.  He said he wrote with his penis.  That must have been very painful.

On the longlist are:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J,  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

The only one I’ve read is Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Prize.  I loved it, it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, but it might be a little too short for the Booker.  Don’t they usually go for the doorstops?

The other big scandal this year:  no Canadians on the longlist.

Lovely Party

“I’ve got to get my Lithium adjusted,” my cousin says at a party.

anne taintor 1 500 attitude is  aterilbIt has thus far been a civilized party. My cousin is always charming for a while, and then she tells stories about her bipolar disorder.  Years ago steroids for an ear infection triggered a manic episode, and she got banned from the grocery store for telling customers the air was poisoned (“and it is,” as she pointed out later). Her  doctor has kept her on psychiatric drugs.  And now she is fat, like all the women in her family.  Yes, it’s the drugs, the genes…you name it.

I suspected it might be a mistake to bring her, but since she decided she was gay two months ago (she’s 39, and none of us believes her), she has been unusually depressed.

“Can’t you muzzle her?” my friend Janet asks.

It’s Janet’s party, and she can cry if she wants to.  She is celebrating her promotion to director of PR at a small charity office. She lives in a tiny town in Amish country, because she can’t afford on her salary to live in Iowa City.  The party is at her mother’s large house in Des Moines, because all of Janet’s friends love to go to Des Moines “to go to Half Price Books,” or “to see the latest musical at the Playhouse.”

My cousin gets into an argument with the attractive, shaggy-haired aficionado of Half Price Books, a physicist, about the condition and quality of books at Half Price Books.

It’s better than the bipolar thing, though.

And then she makes a pass at him.

No, she’s not gay, and she knows it.

Being gay for my cousin meant joining a club that could never reject her.  Okay, gayness is accepted now, but they have a heavy-duty support network that I cannot say we have in the heterosexual community.  It’s cool to be gay; it’s just retro to be hetero.  But my cousin has always been boy-crazy.

Janet decides to get competitive, now that the party is under control again.  She describes  the week-long workshop she recently attended at the Summer Writers’ Festival.  She met some great poets, she says, and wrote some good poems there.   But she laughs at the critical words they used for every poem:  “spare,” “signature,” “personal,” and “mythic.”

And then she and her co-workers talk about a creative campaign for the charity.

And then we lose the party to my cousin again.

She recites a poem by Ogden Nash.

I sit in an office at 244 Madison Avenue
And say to myself you have a responsible job, havenue?
Why then do you fritter away your time on this doggerel?
If you have a sore throat you can cure it by using a good goggerel
If you have a sore foot you can get it fixed by a chiropodist
And you can get your original sin removed by St. John the Bopodist.

I glare at my cousin and say, “We’ve got to go; lovely party.”

Coffee to Go: Coffee in Life, Literature, and TV

costa-coffee-bloomsbury-10505095-largeWhen I was in London for a mere week last spring, I drank a lot of coffee. Every morning I rushed around the corner to Costa, where I drank something called an Americano.

I hoped the dose of caffeine would help me read maps.   It did not.  I was lost all over London, though it didn’t matter since I was just a tourist.  One late afternoon I turned the wrong way on Euston Road and ended up at the British Library.  I squinted at a Bronte manuscript, but the room was very dark and I needed caffeine to find where I was supposed to be.  I found a Starbucks.

Coffee used to be an important part of my life, and I have spent hours at the Sheep’s Head in Iowa City (long gone), the Runcible Spoon in Bloomington (still there), Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe in D.C. (still there), the Linger Longer in Allegany, Grounds for Celebration in Des Moines, Cafe Diem in Ames, Aromas in Omaha, Fresh Grounds in St. Paul, and Starbucks Starbucks Starbucks.  At an airport, Starbucks makes me feel at home.

When I was an adjunct,  I allowed a student to write a term paper on coffee. I wasn’t vested in the term paper thing after I learned from the department head that I could only give A’s or B’s.  If the students didn’t earn a B, I had to give them extra credit, and what a pain that was.  So, fine, if a student wanted to write a paper based on Starbucks brochures, let her.  I made her add nine more sources and called it a C (whoops, a B).

I prefer tea to coffee, but coffee is more romantic.  In the HBO series, Girls, writer-director-actress Lena Dunham plays Hannah, an Oberlin graduate who works at Cafe Grumpy in New York.  When a hunky doctor (Patrick Wilson) comes into Grumpy’s to complain that Grumpy’s trash is being dumped in his garbage cans, it leads to a brief affair with Hannah, who likes putting the  garbage in the cans in front of his brownstone.  Do you think if I went back in time…?  No.

There are also many books with coffee themes.  In Doris Lessing’s short story, “The New Cafe,” in her collection, The Real Thing, the narrator watches a growing friendship/flirtation between a handsome young man and various women over coffee and delicious cakes.  In Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature in 2004, the heroine, Sunshine, a baker at Charlie’s Coffeehouse, helps a good vampire fight the bad vampires.  (We all know the good vampire/bad vampire paradox.)  In Karl Ove Knausgaard’s’s My Struggle, Book 2, the narrator goes out for coffee every afternoon, but switches cafes every five days so he won’t have to chat with a barista.

There’s plenty of coffee in life, literature, and film  What are your favorite coffeehouses and coffee scenes?

A Forgotten Classic: H. G. Wells’s The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman

I am charmed by H. G. Wells’s comedies, among them Kipps, The History of Mr. Polly, and Ann Veronica.  So it is not surprising that I am smitten by one of Wells’s neglected small masterpieces, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman.  Published 100 years ago, surely it is due to be rediscoverd by a small press.

The Wilfe of Sir Isaac Harman h. g. wells faber findsThe strong feminist, socialist themes of the book are deftly balanced by a well-constructed plot.  The beautiful young heroine, Lady Harman, married in her teens to a middle-aged, cranky millionaire, Sir Isaac Harman, struggles to educate herself after giving birth to four children.   Sir Isaac, owner of the International Bread and Cake shops, a monopoly which has put independent bakeries out of business all over England, wants to keep Ellen safely decorative at home, with as few books and newspapers as possible.  He doesn’t want her having ideas.

Naturally, this reminded me of Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera, which is also about a controlling middle-aged husband who prefers his young wife not to see others or read.  Elizabeth and Wells were lovers from 1910 to 1913.  Was Wells mining her material, or was she mining his?   He endearingly tips his hat to von Arnim by giving his heroine, Lady Harman, a copy of Elizabeth’s first novel, Elizabeth and The German Garden. 

In Wells’s  feminist, socialist comedy, Elizabeth and her German Garden inspires Lady Harman to seek beauty in gardens. The only beauty her husband can see is on his billboards for the International Bread and Cake shops.

A book can change your life.

And about this time she happened on Elizabeth and her German Garden, and was very greatly delighted and stimulated by that little sister of Montaigne.  She was charmed by the book’s fresh gaiety, by its gallant resolve to set off all the good things there are in this world, the sunshine and flowers and laughter, against the limitations and thwartings and disappointments of life.  For a time it seemed to her that these brave consolations were solutions, and she was stirred by an imitative passion.  How stupid had she been to let life and Sir Isaac overcome her?  She felt that she must make herself like Elizabeth, exactly like Elizabeth; she tried forthwith, and a certain difficulty she found, a certain deadness, she ascribed to the square modernity of her house and something in the Putney air.

And so she goes looking for a country house, and falls in love with the garden at Black Strands.  Mr. Brumley, a writer and the owner of Black Strands, falls in love with Lady Harman.  He explains the garden was made by his late wife, but doesn’t let on that he couldn’t care less about it.

Wife of Sir Isaac Harman wells (hogarth)Lady Harman must sneak out of the house in Putney to make friends and attend political meetings.  Sir Isaac does everything to isolate her, including buying Black Strands without telling her, ruining it with ugly additions, and then moving her out of the house in Putney one morning with no notice so she can’t go to dinner with a friend.  He wants her to live in the country, where she can see no people.

Ellen needs to get away:  she deliberately smashes a window as part of a suffragist protest so she can go to prison and find time to think. After her release, Sir Isaac gives her a little more freedom, but he perverts every good deed she tries to do.  Interested in the waitresses’ strike at  the shops, she convinces him to build hostels where the waitresses can live cheaply.  He makes the hostels virtual prisons, with absurd rules, and an officious, inhuman matron.

I adore Lady Harman, hate Sir Isaac, and think Mr. Brumley is rather sweet. He, too, becomes a socialist in helping Lady Harman do the research for the Hostels.

I also can’t resist sharing Wells’ little von Arnim joke with you.  Sir Isaac does not allow his wife to see anyone, so when Lady Beach-Mandarin comes to visit,

[The butler] stood with a large obstructiveness in the doorway.  “Lady ‘Arman, my lady,” he said with a well-trained deliberation, “is not a Tome.”

Now isn’t that priceless?

Is Lady Harman Elizabeth von Arnim?

No, she’s not a tome.

I will certainly be reading more H. G. Wells soon.

The Shape of Blogs to Come

Can you imagine blogging on this?  A desktop computer, 1955.

Desktop computer, 1955

I accidentally deleted my blogroll in a redesign, but I do enjoy reading blogs.

I have noted big changes online, however, in the last six months.   Tom at A Common Reader has quit to do other things, Kevin at Interpolations has been on hiatus, and Belle at Belle, Book, and Candle, who faithfully wrote beautiful little vignettes daily, has cut back to once a week (and who can blame her?) .

There is also the trend of the “group blog.”  The Mookes and the Gripe is a well-established group blog, highly recommended by fellow bloggers.  Stuck-in-a-Book now uses his blog almost exclusively to provide links to group blogs.

I do understand why blogs are changing.

There are always new platforms on the internet for writing.

And writing about books is hard.

At my old blog, I was (I thought) fast, fun, and facile.  At Mirabile Dictu, I hope I am still fast, fun, and facile, but I wanted to write occasionally about non-book-related things.

I was also influenced in part by Howard Jacobson’s satiric novel, Zoo Time.  In this hilarious novel, a publisher commits suicide because he has been ordered to tell his writers to “twit” and “blag.”

When he asks at lunch if the hero, Guy, a novelist, “blags,” Guy says,

“Blog? No.”
“The blog’s the end of everything,” [Merton] said.

The blog belongs to yesterday, I wanted to tell him.

I thought this was very, very funny, but… damn.  We like to write, we’re addicted readers of literature, and so we “blag.”

I do think there are ups and downs with blogs.

And then there is the Book Whoredom problem.

It’s hard to be a book whore if you’re reading Doris Lessing or Tolstoy.

But sometimes publicists approach us.  The new book sounds good, we’re dying to read it, and we like to get packages from UPS.

“This is a free book,” I tell my husband dramatically.

The book may be good, or at least pretty decent, but sometimes it’s not quite for me.  And then I worry if it’s better to write something or nothing.

I just don’t read that much contemp lit, so I accept few review copies.  This year in  my “Best of” sidebar I have mentioned five living writers: Joan Chase, Karen Joy Fowler, Alice Hoffman, Michelle Hunevan, and D. J. Taylor.

I am reading an excellent new novel at the moment, thank God, and will write about it soon.  But in my 50s, I’ve grown increasingly picky.  If a book disappoints, I don’t finish it.

I wonder:  will there still be blogs in ten years?  So many people seem bored with them.

I can imagine us all offline…

And that is why I shouldn’t read the dystopian novel, California.  I am such a pessimist.

The Fantasy Question & The Man Booker Prize Longlist Question

Queen Victoria's Book of SpellsHave I read too much science fiction this summer?

Did I recently return from the library with a bag of books by Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Samuel R. Delany?

Did my husband sign on to live with a woman who has strayed into an alternate history in which she never left the library in Bloomington, Indiana?

Perhaps I have gotten a little carried away.

I have now turned from SF novels to short stories.  On my bedside table is an anthology, Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. It includes 18 stories by  such quirky, compelling writers as Gregory Maguire, Tanith Lee, and Catherynne M. Valente.

In the preface, Dadlow and Windling explain the genre of Gaslamp Fantasy, which is not quite like steampunk.

Steampunk fiction, which blends nineteenth-century settings with science fiction elements, receives a great deal of popular attention these days, yet it is only one form of the diverse range of fiction that falls under the Gaslamp Fantasy label. You’ll also find historical fantasy, dark fantasy with a deliciously gothic bent, romantic tales, detective tales, and ‘fantasies of manners’: magical fiction that owes more to Jane Austen, William Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope than to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

This summer, when not reading SF, I’ve been reading early 20th-century realistic comedies by H. G. Wells and Elizabeth von Arnim (who were briefly lovers, and their influence on each other’s work shows).

And so I’m behind on my Man Booker Prize longlist predictions. Not that I ever HAVE predicted them, but this year I’ve read very few new books.  Since the Booker list will include Americans, I would love to see Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, on the list. (I wrote about her stunning novel here.)

The British know how to create suspense with their longlists and shortlists, and readers and bloggers seem genuinely to care about who wins. At our house we are always excited about the Booker longlist. In 2009 we even read James Lever’s Me Cheeta, the autobiography of the chimp in the Tarzan movies.  (We found it in the nonfiction section of a suburban library, and the librarian ignored our insistence that it was fiction.)

Can’t wait to see the longlist tomorrow.